Decatur School Board and Lincoln Park

It is sweltering outside, so it’s a good time to be inside with the AC and two fans blowing on me. Not a big fan of summer heat, but thankful for air conditioning. I’ve been following a few things going on in the city, and finally have a little time to write about them. Of course, the big issue right now is Lincoln Park and a new school.

Yikes, School Board, You’re Terrible

Beyond the debate of whether Lincoln Park is a good spot for a school, the way the school board has handled the whole process should be graded an F-minus. This board has been known to be tone-deaf in the past multiple times, but this one takes the cake. You have to communicate with the public on such matters. And if you screwed up, at least acknowledge it. Admit your wrongdoings, and don’t do it again.

What About Lincoln Park?

I visited Lincoln Park today, and looked over the land and the only practical location to build a school is where the baseball diamond is now located. It’s the only flat part of the park. The rest of the park is made up of steep hills. To my surprise, the flat area isn’t located in a flood zone, according to FEMA. (See below)

Courtesy of FEMA

While, it isn’t located in a flood zone, it is very close to one. The Sangamon River flows nearby. I would assume that soil would be brought in to elevate the land, if a school were to be built there. That’s what I would do, but I’m not an engineer.

As far as preserving Lincoln Park goes, I totally get how passionate people are about it. Believe me, I have been willing to chain myself to trees when the city planned to cut down old oaks for new development. On the bright side, the area in which a school could be built is already open land.

If the school district was planning to cut down those old trees perched upon the hills in Lincoln Park, I’d have to get my chains out again.

The Decatur Park District is looking at ways to cut down on the amount of land that it manages. As Decatur’s population continues to decline, maintaining the city’s many parks with fewer tax dollars has become problematic. I get the park district’s position.

Nearby Neighborhoods

The neighborhoods near Lincoln Park range from historic to dilapidated. The old, abandoned Woodrow Wilson Junior High School building isn’t far away. I’ve always admired that building. I went to school in a bland, one-story grade school that was built quickly for Baby Boomers. No style, no craftsmanship, nothing special, just walls, a flat roof, and lots of kids, when Decatur had plenty of them. I’m a bit jealous of those who went to a school in such a grand building. It’s a shame it was left to decay.

Woodrow Wilson Junior High in sorry condition. 2022.

The Woodrow Wilson area is one that needs some serious redevelopment. Millikin University housing is nearby, as well as the Oakwood retail area, so there’s plenty of potential. However, there are several boarded up houses that need demolished, and the legal tape needed to buy up and tear down properties takes time. Unfortunately, the COVID relief money given to the school doesn’t allow for much time. Hence, the hasty decision to choose Lincoln Park.

Will This Change Be Worth It?

Change is hard. The planned changes to Nelson Park weren’t well received years ago. Closing a golf course, closing a popular scenic road, and closing down the old mini-golf course stung. Change can sting.

The changes to Nelson Park have improved the quality of life in Decatur for many. It takes vision to see that before it happens. But, the public wasn’t left in the dark as to what the proposed changes were. Their input was welcome. Was public input taken into consideration in the park district’s master plans? I don’t know, but at least the park district wasn’t hiding behind closed doors.

That makes a big difference. School board, I hope you’re writing this down in your notes. You’re going to be tested on it later.

Would a school in Lincoln Park be good for Decatur? I don’t know. I do know that many people seem to like Dennis, which the school would be replacing. The West End is one of the most popular neighborhoods in Decatur, and its residents are quite vocal and involved in the community. These are people who vote. These are people who choose to stay in Decatur, because many of them grew up here. Dismissing their voices is a mistake. That much I do know.

A new school may help revitalize the area, if the city targets the nearby neighborhoods for redevelopment. Like I said, there is plenty of potential with Millikin and Oakwood nearby, but the city, police department, school district, and park district all need to step up to the plate to help improve the area and make it safe for school traffic. Safety should be the most important consideration.

A Done Deal

At this point, it looks like it’s a done deal. If so, then let’s be smart about it, and make the most of it. Consider public input. Over $60 million dollars has been given to the district. Spend it wisely.

Part of me gets a kick out of the idea that a school will be built in Lincoln Park. I’ve written about the area in the past and my experiences there. After all, Greenwood Cemetery is just over the hill. A haunted school will give kids something to talk about, especially while they’re flowing down the Sangamon River during a flash flood.

Just kidding! Seriously, I hope the school board has learned something from this. Involve the public, and listen to them. Make informed decisions, and be respectful to voters. That’s all we ask.